People use “one of a kind” too much. “Unique” as well (see Strunk & White, who remind us that unique shouldn’t need a modifier). But in many ways, Gene Wilder is one of those we’re not likely to see again. Certainly he was in the upper echelons of great comedians–the man was hilarious, his timing and energy infectious, elevating so many of his roles to a point that not many else could (his delivery in this bit cracks me up every time). But there are a lot of comedians and comedic actors out there who are also able to tickle the funny bone. There’s something more to Wilder than “merely” the capability of making us laugh.
What I’m getting at is perhaps best exemplified by one of Wilder’s most famous roles as Willy Wonka. He has a whole range of seeming non sequiturs throughout the film, but one of the best is when Veruca Salt, one of the children on a tour of Wonka’s factory, objects that there is no such thing as snozzberrys–what they’re eating can’t possibly have snozzberry flavor. Wonka/Wilder responds with the first two lines of a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (“Ode”):
“We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” (short clip here)
Beyond the humor, beyond the delight at confuzzling one of the bratty kids who won a tour of the most amazing chocolate factory ever, is something that is ineffable and serious at the same time. Why is your thinking so locked down, kid? Why are you so limited? Dream big (good lord, you’re tasting flavored wallpaper, after all)!
Wilder doesn’t just deliver it like a throwaway line, either, something for quick laughs (which many might do). He believes it, heart and soul, and this belief is resonating from his eyes.*
And while not every line of Wilder’s many roles convey such depth, it’s what I will remember about him. It’s important to laugh in the moment, but it’s just as important to be a dreamer of dreams.